A bull moose stands defiantly in the middle of a timber road northeast of Millinocket. Credit: Stephen M. Katz

Drivers in Maine are colliding with the state’s largest land mammal a lot less often than they used to, and a number of factors play into that, according to two state biologists.

Both of those men — Eric Ham of the Maine Department of Transportation and state moose biologist Lee Kantar of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — say a shrinking moose herd is among the most important reasons only 256 moose-vehicle crashes were registered in 2018. That number is just 34 percent of the total amassed back in 2001, when 754 of those crashes were reported.

DOT efforts to make the roads safer via signage, lighting, trimming back trees to give more visibility and doing landscape work to make areas less attractive to moose were also mentioned.

“Moose populations have been trending to the lower side, and most of the drop in crashes we have seen kind of coincides with that,” Ham said.

According to DOT records, the number of moose-vehicle crashes in the state has declined each year for the past six, and the number of resulting fatalities has followed suit. For the five years between 2003 and 2007, a total of 15 people lost their lives in moose-related crashes. For the most recent five years, up until 2018, just five people died in similar crashes.

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Kantar said that back in 2012, the DIF&W estimated the state’s moose population at 75,000. By that time, Maine’s herd was already several years into a decline.

“[In 1999] I am sure that the state had well over 100,000 moose,” Kantar said. “Easily.”

Kantar doesn’t have an estimate for 2019, but said it’s probably not a stretch to assume that if moose-related collisions have decreased by more than 50 percent since the turn of the century, that mirrors a population trend that could mean there are fewer than 50,000 moose on the landscape.

“Things change over time, and the habitat changes,” Kantar said. “Our [moose population] changes and moves around. But you know, we still have a fairly robust commercial forest industry that provides, on a continuing basis, new food sources as it rotates through over time. And that’s how Maine moose habitat is driven [in northern Maine].”

Ham said the DOT has responded to crash data by putting signs in places where there is a high density of moose-related crashes. And a fairly recent tactic involving landscaping techniques is seeming to help make roads safer.

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“In some cases we’ll increase the amount of rip-rap, or large angular rock that goes on the in-slope, in the thought that the moose don’t really like to walk on it that much,” Ham said. “Especially in an area where you might have low visibility, or you might just have a ton of activity, use of rip-rap in creative ways helps funnel the moose or keep the moose activity a little lower.”

Kantar praised the DOT’s contributions.

“The Department of Transportation has done an outstanding job on an educational basis with telling the public, ‘Here’s when moose get hit, here’s the time of day and time of night people should be careful,’” Kantar said. “And then they’ve done all kinds of work trying to figure out physically on the ground how they can deal with the road systems.”

A few things to keep in mind: June is the most dangerous month for moose crashes (349 incidents over the five years between 2013 and 2017), while July (228) and May (207) are ranked second and third.

As to where you’re most apt to hit a moose, the answer is simple: Where most of the moose live. Aroostook County.

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Aroostook had more than double the number of moose-related crashes over those five years (698) than the second-highest ranked county, Penobscot (263). And as you might expect, coastal counties like Knox (4 crashes in five years), Sagadahoc (3) and Lincoln (5) were far safer.

Kantar said a reduction in the state’s moose population isn’t necessarily a bad thing, pointing at the incidence of often-deadly winter tick infestations, along with fatal brain worms in moose as potential results of overpopulation.

And now, the state’s priority is not to simply grow the moose population, but to grow healthier moose.

A healthier moose herd means more cows will have twins on a more regular basis, and cows will have calves at a younger age, Kantar said. Fewer animals will contract brain worm, and be infested with winter ticks.

And that population level will likely be far short of that 100,000-animal level.

But that doesn’t mean that Maine drivers ought to stop paying attention, Kantar cautions.

“When spring breaks out and summer starts, that’s a tough time, and you know what? People need to be super-aware driving,” Kantar said. “And I would say that regardless of a 50 percent decline in moose collisions, people still need to be just as vigilant as they ever were.”

Watch: Mama moose charges bicyclist, news van in Alaska

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...